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Dissect This Trailer: Moonlight

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Movies ask questions. What is under the water, who is robbing the bank, when will he notice me. An effective movie trailer reveals the core question of the movie but without going so far as to answer it. So Moonlight thrives because it’s weapons are sharp, let’s review the assets:

The film – This film is shot incredibly well, the reason the trailer is compelling is in large part because the footage is compelling. Bravo to the colorist, (trailer or/and film), who has been able to capture the dreamy southern gothic romance vibe perfectly.
Music – In this instance, using film score is a huge plus, it provides a tone that is intense and mysterious.
Graphics – They’re artfully done, they’re very legible and the choice of color speaks to title and tone of the film.
Narration – There is none, it doesn’t need any.

As far as I know there’s just one trailer for Moonlight. And this makes sense for a variety of reasons. First, no teaser because this film doesn’t fall into the highly anticipated category. There just weren’t tens of millions of people blowing up A24’s social pages to release a Moonlight trailer. Also, you probably reached your target audience with the first one, and why not save the money.  Lastly, I believe when you so completely and succinctly define the premise of the content of your film in a single trailer, there’s no point in going through the same exercise again.

The first thing I’m hit with is some somber oboe music and the sound of crickets, as two guys are walking through the night. Already you’re creating a world without saying anything, no dialogue, no cards. Act I of this trailer ends at about the 28 second mark. And all we’ve gotten is one character questioning why the other has driven down to wherever they are, but because of the quality of the performance, we’re immediately curious. Never underestimate the curiosity of the human mind. We want to know things, we want to discover things, if one character won’t reveal their motivations for being in a certain place at a certain time, then we as viewers are inherently curious as to why that is.

Act I tells me this is a movie about learning something about people. That something appears to be wrapped in mystery and tension, because of ACTING and SOUND DESIGN. The creative behind this trailer knew, it wasn’t necessary to jump in right away with a bunch of quick editorial cuts. Present the central theme of the story quickly, with elegance.

So let’s take a moment here to address one part of what makes this trailer so successful. The music the trailer is set to is incredible and award worthy. It’s haunting, impactful, and filled with longing. I do not know Nicholas Brittel, but after spending 20 seconds on his Wikipedia page it’s clear that I should. Seriously, just take 20 seconds, maybe a minute, and prepare to be impressed. So, they’re using score, which is incredibly fortunate. A lot of time the score isn’t ready in time for the trailer to be released so the creatives have to license an appropriate song. There isn’t any hard and fast rule for using score in the trailer or not. If it works and it’s better than what you can license, then you’re crazy not to, but composers aren’t thinking about the trailer when they’re doing their job. They’re scoring the whole 2 hour film. They may be a lock for an academy award, but that doesn’t mean their score necessarily works in 2 minutes.

Back to the trailer! See that “From Director Barry Jenkins” card that came up? That’s how you know we’re getting into Act II of the trailer, it’s a visual that means we’re moving to another time and place in the film. So what do we notice about this card? It’s an electric sort of blue, almost like a neon, but the typeface is very clear, very elegant. These aren’t big blobby cartoon neon letters, but the shade is unique. It speaks to title, if Moonlight were a color, it might be this shade of blue.  I’ll actually spend a decent amount of time on cards and graphics on these entries. As a creative these are your assets. You’ve got the film footage, you’ve got cards, you’ve got music, and you’ve got narration. These are the weapons that you wage the war for eyeballs with so every one of them must be sharp and used to the best of its abilities.

Now we’re into Act II, notice that we’re seeing several shots of the character as a youth but they’re from behind and he’s walking alone. Notice how the opening shots were from behind, but there were two characters? This editorial device of showing two grown ups versus one child immediately makes us feel empathy, we see a child walking alone where previously we saw two men together, one image is closeness, the other is isolation. Act II presents us with another core element of the film, “Who is you, Shawn?”. Visually we’re learning that this person is isolated, beaten, but also joyful. We’re seeing a character of extremes, a young boy being subjected to the best and the worst of life. Polarity is by nature, tension.

The middle of Act II shows us the adults in young Shawn’s life, and again, polarity. A woman is screaming and a man’s holding young Shawn gently in the water. Again we’re presented with the central theme of the film, deciding who he will be. The rest of Act II escalates the tension, the beatings becoming more violent, he refuses to discuss his situation with others, and he is emotionally shutting down.

But now we roll into Act III, where the trailer ends. We see Shawn as an adult again, and we arrive at the beginning, coming full circle with two important questions, “Who is you?” and “What did you expect?”.

Main Image Credit: The Atlantic

Ryan Hunter

I’ve spent the last decade and a half working in almost every discipline within the world of Motion Picture Marketing. I love great trailers. And I love to share what I think makes a trailer great from the technical perspective of the process by which they’re constructed.

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